Monday, July 26, 2010

Apostrophes and Contractions (They go together)

We're back to basics today, dear readers.

It seems that many people, although they're long out of high school or college, have yet to grasp the basic principles of contractions and plurals. I'm not trying to make you feel stupid; in fact, my goal is to make sure you feel smart by the end of this.

What the heck is a contraction? According to my good friend Merriam Webster:

contraction |kənˈtrak sh ən|


the process of shortening a word by combination or elision.

(Elision? What's that word mean? If you haven't already noticed this, then I'm here to tell you now that there will always be words in the English language that you simply won't know. It's been happening to me constantly since I first learned to talk.)

In short, it's when you put two or three words together to make a single easy-to-say word. It's a word-shortcut to save your tongue some waggling. In fact, you probably use them every day without knowing about it. How's that for a thought? There are things in your mouth that you didn't even know about!

Examples of contractions are as follows:

Can not = cannot = can't

Will not = won't

Shall not = shan’t (though this one has fallen out of use)

It is = it's

I already touched on this in my very first blog, but here I'm going to go into further detail.

For now, lets forget about It's because it (apparently) is one of the most confusing words in the English language (right next to “their” “there” and “they're”).

If you're feeling lost in the abstracted nonsense that is grammar rules, you're not alone. Instead of tables and charts, I feel that the strongest teacher is a good example. What follows is a sentence without a contraction followed by a Natural English (as I think of it) example of what an actual person might say.

I do not want to,” said Anakin.

I don't want to,” said Anakin.

(Bonus points if you can find another place for a contraction in this sentence. Hint: It's a combination of the two words “want to.”)

I cannot go with you,” said the girl, “because you are creepy.”

I can't go with you,” said the girl, “because you're creepy.”

All that's happening above is two words are merging together to make another, better word. You might have heard people use the word “ain't.” It wasn't an officially recognized word until a few years ago, when dictionaries everywhere added it, complete with a deliciously complicated definition (Merriam Webster New Oxford American ed.)

ain't |ānt| informal

contraction of

am not; are not; is not : if it ain't broke, don't fix it. [ORIGIN: originally representing London dialect.]

has not; have not : they ain't got nothing to say. [ORIGIN: from dialect hain't.]

But you probably shouldn't use ain't, despite the fact that it's “a word.”

As for apostrophes, the reason get these so confused is because they're not sure if they're using a contraction or a regular word. For instance, “it's” and “its” are endlessly confusing to many people because they look like the same word.

It's ≠ its.

It's” is the combination of the words “it is,” as in “it's time for dinner.”

Meanwhile, “its” is possessive, which means it belongs to the subject in the sentence.

The dog licked its paw.” ≠ “The dog licked it's paw.” You can see that for the second example, what's actually being said is “the dog licked it is paw.” This doesn't make any sense.

Who's ≠ whose “Who's,” again, is a contraction of the two words “who is.” “Who's this?” “Who's there?”

Whose is possessive, rather like “its.” “Whose car is this?” “I found this action figure, but I don't know whose it is.” If you swap one for the other and read it without a contraction, it sounds wrong.

Who's car is this?” = “Who is car is this?” (Hilarious to read, by the way.)

I found this action figure, but I don't know who's it is.” = “I don't know who is it is.”

There's ≠ theirs

There's” means “there is,” as in, “there is a cat on the roof,” which equals “there's a cat on the roof.”

Their's” is, again, possessive. “It's not my car, it's theirs.” ≠ “it's not my car, it's there's.”

Man, I'm actually starting to feel the drag of grammar here. What you should take away from this is that whenever you see an apostrophe, you know that there are two words there. Just split up the words and read the sentence. This makes it incredibly easy to tell which form you're using.

Its time for me to go!

(Wait, should it be “it's” time for me to go?)

(It is time for me to go...)

(Yeah, that's right. I should use it's instead of its.)

It's time for me to go!


  1. If we homeschool the boys, I think I will use your blog as curriculum! :D

  2. I agree with Megan, when I was teaching you and your brothers and sisters, your grammar book would have been a hoot.
    Everything out there that teaches grammar is so boring, that my brain would just turn off.